173. Coronavirus and the Orthodox Church

I’m interrupting the series on the Divine Liturgy of Saint Basil to deal with this subject which, not surprisingly, many people are concerned about. So we will now talk about How to Pray if you’re stuck a home or if your parish church is closed, Holy Communion, Icons, Hugging and Kissing.

What follows will not include medical advice. Well, just a little – but only for  “religious” reasons. I’ll have to include some of my personal experiences and opinions, since the Fathers and the early Tradition of the Church haven’t much to say about some of these matters.

Subject 1: What to do if your Parish Church closes, or if you’re stuck at Home

This will include many of us. My Antiochian Metropolitan Joseph just directed that no more than ten people should be at worship at the same time, and that weekday services be cancelled. * I had already decided that I, being 81 years old, should stay away.  I assume other Hierarchs are doing something similar.

  • After less than a week I’m already finding this very difficult, since for over sixty years the Church, her daily round of services and saints and her people, have been the focus of my life. But Metropolitan Joseph is doing the right thing. I’m working my way through it.

First, pray, brothers and sisters! Pray! Pray especially for health care workers and others in similar professions. Pray for those who are ill. Pray for each other. Pray for the world.

Regularly say this Prayer in Time of Trouble from the Ancient Faith Prayer Book:

O, Lord of hosts, be with us. For in times of distress we have no other hope but You. O Lord of hosts, have mercy on us.


This is Byzantine music. Maybe some of you can even sing along.

Don’t ignore Lent. Keep up the Fast the best you can. But especially if you’re housebound, give yourself some treats – you need them this year.

During Holy Week, I’ll repeat last year’s twice-daily series of commentaries on the services and guide you through the events of this blessed Week.

And if when Pascha comes we’re still in the midst of this (and it looks like we will be), keep the Feast. Eat as well as you can. Sing the Paschal Troparion a lot: “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life”. Search online, and you can find many lovely versions of this, and I’ll post some here too.

Do what the CDC or your local government directs. If they tell you to stay at home or limit your activities, please do so. I’m sorry, but this applies also to church, even if it’s open. The latest research says Coronavirus spreads easily through the air and also on what we touch. Despite some of the behavior we see on television, keep your distance; even elbow bumps are too close. Symptoms of the virus often do not appear for a week or two (if at all), and people (including you) are contagious during this time. We are told that our hospitals are not prepared for what is probably coming. Why am I giving you medical advice? But this is spiritual advice: Even if you don’t care about yourself, “love your neighbor”. That is the command of the Lord.

If you can’t get to church on Sunday:

1 As usual, devote an hour or so on Sunday mornings to prayer.

2 Some churches provide the Divine Liturgy on-line. If yours does not, you can find find many live stream Liturgies and other services.(This is a time when your Priest won’t mind if you “shop around”, so take advantage of it!)

Immediately after I first published this, I discovered (in a Blogpost right next to this one!) that Ancient Faith Radio will now broadcast Lenten and Holy Week services live on radio. To find them, go to: https://blogs.ancientfaith.com/behind-the-scenes/2020/03/20/lenten-services-now-streaming-live-on-ancient-faith-radio/   

I know of the following sources but can’t guarantee them, since up till now I have always been in church on Sundays:

From the Greek Archdiocese at: https://www.goarch.org/live-broadcasts  

From Holy Cross Monastery, Wayne, WV:


All services from Holy Transfiguration (Women’s) Monastery in Ellwood City, Pennsylvania (a lovely place): http://www.orthodoxmonasteryellwoodcity.org/chapel

From Holy Cross Church, Linthicum, MD:


My Antiochian Archdiocese provides a print-out of the full Saturday Vespers and Sunday morning Orthros and Liturgy (yes, I know the translations leave something to be desired) at: https://www.antiochian.org/liturgicday

Or just try searching for “Eastern Orthodox Liturgy live” either on Google or on YouTube  Even a previously recorded Liturgy is ok. However, take care not to spend all Sunday morning just searching!

You can find Orthodox Music and Teaching 24 hours a day at: http:/www.ancientfaith.com   This is a wonderful site!

If you’d rather “do it yourself”, weekends and weekdays, here are some resources:

My favoite prayer book for many reasons (I use it daily) is the Ancient Faith Prayer Book.  

To the right you can see how beautifully it’s laid out. Besides having good modern translations, it’s a joy to read.

It’s available from the Ancient Faith Bookstore, or Amazon (as what isn’t? even purported relics!)

There are many other fine little prayer books available. For example, the little Antiochian “Pocket Prayer Book”. Again, see Amazon.

You can find the Orthodox calendar of daily Orthodox Scripture readings on most parish calendars.

However if you want to read the Bible the easy way (as I do), you’ll find the readings from the daily Orthodox lectionary laid out before you at: 

https://www.goarch.org/chapel/  (They’ll even e-mail them to you, if you wish!) Here you’ll also find the stories of the saints of the day, and also Prayers for the various times of day. (Go to the three bars on the far upper right, then scroll down a ways.) I use this site regularly.

Another online source for printed daily Scripture readings:  https://www.antiochian.org/liturgicday  

Biographies (often very detailed) of the Saints of each Day: http://oca.org/saints/lives

On your smartphone, for daily Scripture readings and many prayers, download :”Daily Readings” or “Daily Readings Lite” app from the Greek Archdiocese. There are several apps with similar names, so be careful to go to the Orthodox one. It’s a blue square with a gold Greek Cross in the middle.

If you now have children at home God bless you!, and try these:

  • Let Us Attend: Lessons on the Sunday Gospel for children of all ages
  • Be the Bee: videos for children about all aspects of life in the Church

5  Here is a good Akathist for the times. http://akathistcollections.blogspot.com/2011/11/akathist-to-all-merciful-lord-physician.html

And of course, keep up with Ancient Faith Blogs! not neglecting this one.

If all that doesn’t keep you busy till the Coronavirus has left us, I don’t know what will…

Subject 2:  Can disease be transmitted through Holy Communion? 

This is for those who are still able to attend Church.

This is a difficult issue, at least for me, and I’ll include some personal opinion.

Many (all?) Hierarchs of the Orthodox Church have recently issued statements like this: “The teaching of the Orthodox Church is that disease cannot be passed on by Holy Communion.” So far as I know, all have insisted that the current practice of the people receiving from the Spoon must be continued. 

Is this the “Official Teaching” of the Church?

Please correct me and forgive me if I’m wrong, but I can’t discover where or when this became an Article of Faith. The ancient Fathers didn’t deal with it, only because the practice of using a spoon for Holy Communion never became the norm till about the Ninth Century. Before that Orthodox laypeople received the Holy Bread and Wine separately, as Priests and Bishops still do. I read that the Spoon then came into use to protect the Holy Eucharist, since people were dropping crumbs of the Holy Bread on the floor. (Probably you’ve noticed how careless some people are with the Antidoron.) Some say it was also a means of “hurrying” Communions along – though I wonder, because at that time not many received regularly.

In addition, the question of transmitting disease by the Spoon never arose till the late 19th Century, simply because before that no one knew about germs and viruses. So the question, whatever the answer, is a modern one.

So how did this become “the Teaching of the Orthodox Church” which must be received “by faith”? I do not know. (Please comment below if you do.)

Speaking only for myself, I wish that during the present situation, our Hierarchs would at least consider returning to some form of the Traditional ancient practice of receiving the Holy Eucharist, to put peoples’ minds at rest. Including mine, since as an old person with an underlying medical condition, I am very much at risk. Does that betray a lack of faith on my part? I hope not. Will it get me sent back to the Episcopal Church? I hope not!

My personal experience 

I received the Holy Eucharist from the chalice (after the people did) for over fifty years, first Episcopalian and then Orthodox, Sundays and many weekdays.  If disease was passed on through Holy Communion, I’d think I would have been sick far more than other people. I was not. 

Although, seemingly inconsistently, during all that time if I was ill I took care not to receive from the chalice before members of the congregation did, out of consideration for their fears and my own fear of passing it on to them. Father David, my successor at Saint Nicholas, has done the same.

This story is second hand:  I personally know a Priest who “reserved” the Holy Bread for future use, and somehow it went moldy. Believing that one cannot get ill by receiving the Holy Gifts, he ate it and immediately had to be taken to the emergency room. I’ve been told, without explanation, that this was “a different situation”.

Reasons to believe that Holy Communion cannot transmit disease

Because our Hierarchs say so, and they are good, holy, faithful men.

Because before we receive the Eucharist, the Priest prays “Therefore, O Master, we pray You, distribute these gifts here spread forth to all of us for good according to the individual need of each….heal the sick, You who are the Physician of our souls and bodies.”

Because we have faith that Christ miraculously protects us from disease each time we receive Holy Communion.

I’ve read that the sweet wine usually used for the Eucharist hinders germs and viruses. Has anyone done a study of this? (If you know, please comment below.)

Father John Breck, whom I greatly trust, was quoted in a 2009 OCA article on-line: “To declare that disease cannot be transmitted via Holy Communion is an article of faith; it cannot be proved to the satisfaction of everyone (it would in fact amount to proving a negative.)”

Some reasons to worry about receiving Holy Communion (especially by Spoon) during times of disease, like the present one.

Now let’s emphasize the last part of what Father John Breck said above: “To declare that disease cannot be transmitted via Holy Communion is an article of faith; it cannot be proved to the satisfaction of everyone (it would in fact amount to proving a negative.)”

Because of our Orthodox understanding of the Holy Eucharist. (Again, please correct me if I’m wrong.) I think we believe that in the consecration of the Holy Gifts, the change is “spiritual” (is that the right word?) but not material. The bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ without ceasing to be bread and wine. This is obvious because they still taste, feel and look like bread and wine, which have no power in and of themselves to hinder the passing on of disease. So to ask God each time to miraculously remove their natural properties – I worry: is this trying to to test God? But “You shall not put the Lord Your God to the test.” Deuteronomy 6:16, Luke 4:12, quoted by our Lord in response to Satan. Is this just my science background kicking in?

No one, so far as I know, has done a study of Orthodox people who received by the Spoon versus other Christians who did not. Even then I think we wouldn’t know, because so many other factors would enter in.

So … if you choose to receive the Holy Eucharist at the present time “in faith”, God bless you. But take care not to be an offense to your “weaker brother”.

And if you choose not to receive the Eucharist now, God bless you. If you wish, go up and ask the Priest for a blessing. This does not make you a heretic, and don’t let anybody tell you it does – for there has never been a council of the Church to rule on it. If we make a rational and conscientious decision not to receive Holy Communion, God does not cut us off from His grace and love. He is not like that.

Subject 3:  What about kissing icons?

I just read a directive from one Bishop, who shall remain nameless, saying his people should continue kissing Icons, because surely God will not allow Holy Icons to convey disease. Where is that found in the Church’s teaching? Many other Bishops are presently asking people not to kiss the Icons but rather to let a deep bow and the sign of the Cross suffice for now. Many Hierarchs are asking clergy to carefully sanitize the Icons. Good. But that works only till the first person kisses them, and then…

Subject 4:  Hugging and Kissing each other

Oh, I hate to say this, because we Orthodox love the “personal touch” so much. I’ve never been hugged and kissed (Orthodox style) and been loved so much by so many people, as since I became Orthodox. But, dear ones, till this crisis is over, don’t do it. Even an “elbow bump” is too close. Give people an “air hug” or an “air kiss”. And hey! I have an idea. Why not tell them you care about them? And give a text or an email or best of all a phone call to people, especially those who live alone and are probably feeling cut off. Keep in touch. We need each other, especially at a time like this.

So there we are, brothers and sisters, and here we are. What can we do? Please, please take care of yourself, keep a safe distance from others, wash your hands and use sanitizer a lot (if you can find it), and as I said, pray, pray, pray.

Trust in God, and in time He and His blessed Mother and His Saints will get us through this mess.

with love in Christ, Father Bill



Next Week: back to The Divine Liturgy of Saint Basil. Maybe.

18 thoughts on “173. Coronavirus and the Orthodox Church

  1. Thank you, Fr Bill
    We over 70s in New Zealand are expected to stay at home.
    The Anglican Churches in my area and Roman Catholics throughout are cancelling services
    from 22nd March.as we are not allowed more than 100 people in one venue( that means cathedrals I suppose.) In Christchurch many churches are still meeting in parish halls because the church building was ruined of badly damaged in the long series of strong earthquakes we had from 2010 for about 18 months. I mention this to encourage people. Here we had to get along with very little for a very long time in damaged houses with most shops shut. It’s amazing what can be done in times of disaster by ordinary people. No, I did not experience any help from neighbours because so many people had to leave and there were few neighbours around so I have no tales of communities.
    So even if you are alone ask for God’s help and it comes in strange ways , keep your eyes open.
    (Anglican Churches I have attended have had holy wafers handed out by lay servers so I expect that is another reason they have postponed assembling indefinitely.
    https://www.anglican.org.nz/ for provisions they are making.
    Here is an Antiochian Orthodox Liturgy on YouTube which I use quite a lot

    The Divine Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom chanted in English by the Mount Lebanon Choir of Byzantine Music.

    1. Thank you very much for encouraging us. And poor St Mary of Egypt didn’t even have the internet to keep her occupied. Alone with God, eh? We all have a few things to learn.

  2. Part of a message from a Deacon friend’
    “We’ll be like St Zosimas and the other monks who went off into the desert for Lent, without any communion or services. God willing it will only last for that length of time and not how long St Mary spent in the wilderness!”
    Thank you Father

  3. Metropolitan Kallistos Ware, and several other sources I will have to look up, state that the Eucharist totally becomes the Body and Blood, and miraculously retains the APPEARANCE of bread and wine. There is the documented story of how Bishop John of Chicago of blessed memory gave communion to a woman in hospital being treated for rabies. She immediately vomited and he consumed it to protect the gifts. Such is the faith of bishops!

    1. Thank you. I have the deepest respect for Bishop Kallistos. Could you find where he wrote that? I’d like to read it. This sounds rather like the Roman Catholic doctrine of Transubstantiation, properly understood: that the “substance” (inner reality) changes to the Body and Blood, while the “accidents” (outward forms) remain the same.

  4. Metropolitan Kallistos actually makes the statement in his book “The Orthodox Church” where he is discussing the sacraments but I don’t have a copy handy anymore to cite the page number.

    1. I checked the section on the Liturgy in “The Orthodox Church”. Is this what you’re referring to? In a footnote on page 284 in my edition, when he says the “bread and wine are changed into the Body and Blood of Christ” but that “their outward forms… continue miraculously to exist”, he is describing the Roman Catholic doctrine of Transubstantiation.

  5. Father, if the partaking of Holy Communion–the act, not just the Divine Gifts themselves–could transmit disease, then it would have been apparent to all for many centuries that priests and deacons were habitually sick. There’s always something going around! And yet, though we can’t, as you point out, “prove a negative,” the fact that clergy do not have a reputation for ill health is good evidence that Holy Communion is safe. I’ve been blessed to consume the Holy Gifts after nearly every Divine Liturgy at our parish in the years I’ve been a deacon, and if anything, I think I’m healthier than before. May God preserve His clergy.

    1. Thank you, Deacon Nicholas. As I said in the Post, that was exactly my experience for over fifty years. Receiving the chalice after the people did not make me sicker. I agree with you completely. I agree with me completely! However… … Long ago in the Episcopal Church I preached an eloquent sermon urging people to come to Confession, eliminating every possible reason they could have not to do so. After Mass a lady came up to me and said, “I agree with everything you said. And I’m not going to do it.”

  6. Thank you Fr. Bill for this post…..it discusses topics that I have seen argued and debated endlessly on Facebook of late. Many are deeply unhappy that churches have been closed. Some have gone so far as to tout it as a government conspiracy! When I see it’s going to the “crazy place”, I back out and move on. Our congregation probably has 1/3 or close to 1/2 of adults over the age of 50, myself included. I would not want to be responsible for making anyone sick enough that they might die. And so, while our church is closed, I can conveniently avoid communion ~ although I do not believe it would make me sick, I am not willing to take any chances. I did read one scientific paper (and I actually found it at the University’s library!) and the last tests done were from 1997 that concluded that if one is sick one should not partake, but there haven’t been documented cases of illness specifically caused by those sharing the chalice. If you want to read it I could send you the pdf, which I am warning you right now describes other less than desirable descriptions of diseases from religious “rituals”. Having said that, the corona virus is something new. I am truly astounded that there are people that are willing to enter into a crowded place at this time.

    Luckily our parish is now live streaming all services. It was so nice to see the inside of the church….with the incense I was burning along with candles at my icon corner, it was almost as good. However, nothing could come close to a Paschal service. I’ve only been to one (chrismated last year), and it was so moving. Watching it on a screen ~ no matter how large ~ can’t replace it.

  7. Fr. Bill,

    The controversy around celiac disease and the Holy Eucharist of last year, and now this virus, reinforces what Fr. Alexander Schmemann identified (see the appendix essay’s in “For the Life of the World”) as a “pseudomorphism” on the part of the great mass of Orthodox believers (including many in the hierarchy), an acceptance of a metaphysical tran-substantiation of the bread and wine. This is the acceptance of too many Orthodoxy of the fundamental either/or of the Latin mind – the “corrupt” or “diseased” *profane* world opposed to the “heavenly” or “immaculate” *sacred* one. This theology is Docetic to the core, and I see tonight that Fr. Cyril Hovorun has said as much, though I regret that he published in “Public Orthodoxy”, as many folks will reject his thoughts out of hand now and frankly,who can blame them given how much bad theology has come out of that organization over the years.

    No known human pathogens can survive in the “natural” element of wine (or beer for that matter) for more than a couple of seconds. You don’t need to be a Christian believer to understand this. This does not mean however that there is not an unkown one, or that there will not be one in the future.

    The bread and wine really remains bread and wine when the *become* the Body and Blood. There is no opposition or magical Heavenly Disinfectant that results from this Sacramental Realist Symbolism (as Fr. Schmemann put it). The properties of bread and wine remain, with no opposition to the Divine anymore than there was opposition between His two natures in the Person of Christ in the Incarnation.

    Christopher Encapera

    1. For sake of the unlearned (like me): Pseudo-morphism is a “mineralological” term describing what happens when a new mineral takes the place of an original mineral, thereby retaining the same outward form even though the original has been entirely replaced by the new one. It has other applications. Father Schmemann used this to describe the RC doctrine of Transubstantiation, whereby the Bread retains its original outward form, while its inner reality is changed completely into the Body of Christ. He contended that for Orthodox to adopt this understanding of the Holy Eucharist is part of the “westernization” which overtook Orthodoxy several centuries ago, and is contrary to the genuine Orthodox Tradition. So what is behind the common Orthodox belief that the Eucharist cannot convey disease? 1) Is it the doctrine of Transubstantiation in Orthodox guise? or 2) Is it because Orthodox have faith that God grants a “healing miracle” each time we receive the Holy Eucharist?

      1. Fr. Bill,

        If I may, here are my answers to your questions – these are my opinions of course:

        1) “Is it the doctrine of Transubstantiation in Orthodox guise?”

        I think so, in the main (there are exceptions of course). I believe Fr. Schmemann was right. There is no doubt that if you are born in the west (and increasingly in the “orthodox village” of eastern europe, Greece, eastern mediterranean, etc.) that the basic facts of our culture and religious situation have an effect on you. You are trained in it from a young age, and almost every aspect of our “secular” lives reinforces it. Basic to this cultural fish bowl is the sacred/profane split – the two-story universe. This divide is bridged or “fixed” by the ‘miracle’ of transubstantiation, even if the vast majority of believers don’t have the technical terminology and background to say so.

        2) “Is it because Orthodox have faith that God grants a “healing miracle” each time we receive the Holy Eucharist?”

        I suppose one could hold this as doctrine, but it begs many questions. I believe it to be against the whole flow (to choose a term) of the Greek/Christian synthesis of our Orthodox Fathers. What is the scope of this particular yet continuous miracle? What is wrong with the very nature of bread and wine that they require a miracle each and every time, and how is this different from the essentialist metaphysics of transubstantiation? Is not all of creation a miracle? How does this kind of belief escape a de facto Docetic comprehension of the Holy Eucharist?

  8. Hi,
    I join the conversation as an evangelical Anglican from the UK. Over here churches are shut and we are in “lockdown” at the direction of the government. We have moved all our church life online at this time. Zoom is a remarkable app.
    My questions are:
    1) Is it possible for Orthodox to celebrate the Divine Liturgy (and of course included in that the Eucharist) away from a church building?
    2) Can someone try and explain the difference between Orthodox, Catholic and Reformed views of Christ’s real presence in the Eucharist? (As simply as is possible.)
    Many thanks.
    Stay safe and be blessed in a rather different Lent and Holy Week when it comes.

    1. 1) Regarding Anglicans I’ve seen it done; that’s all I know. In the Orthodox Church, I think this might be possible in an emergency but only with the blessing of the Bishop or Archbishop.

      2) That’s a large question.

      ORTHODOX believe in Christ’s Real Presence there, but we have no particular doctrine as to how this is accomplished. We believe it simply because He said so. He took bread and said “This is my Body”, the wine and said “This is my Blood”.

      The ROMAN CATHOLIC CHURCH teaches Transubstantiation, using Aristotelian concepts. The substance (inner reality) of the bread and wine are changed into the Body and Blood of Christ, while the “accidents” (taste, touch etc.) remain the same.

      By REFORMED, I presume you mean classic Calvinist teaching. I think this says that the Real Presence is found not in the bread and wine themselves, but in the receiving of the bread and wine “in faith”. This is why after the Lord’s Supper they retain no particular reverence for the bread and wine, and do not “reserve” the Sacrament to be taken out to the sick. Whether Reformed Christians still believe this I don’t know. If I have misunderstood this, will someone please correct me.

      May God bless and protect you, too.

    2. 1) Yes. I’ve seen the Divine Liturgy served outside, in hotel conference rooms and in private homes. Once upon a time, Divine Liturgy was done in catacombs.
      2) I don’t care about Catholic and “reformed” views. I know that the Eucharistic gifts offered in the Orthodox Divine Liturgy become the Body and Blood of our Lord, God, and Savior Christ Jesus.

      Spending time with God in a space specifically “set aside” (holy) for the purpose is going to be best, but sometimes you do the best you can in a given set of circumstances.

      1. I forgot that at our Antiochian conventions, the Divine Liturgy is celebrated in hotels, since the sponsoring church is not large enough to hold the crowd. An OCA Priest told me once in jest (I think…) that every time he passed by a hotel, he crossed himself because he figured an Antiochian had been ordained there!

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: